The Tall Stranger

With slow, ponderously rhythmical steps the oxen moved, each step a pause and an effort, each movement a deadening drag. Fine white dust hung in a sifting cloud about the wagon train, caking the nostrils of animals and men, blanketing the sides of oxen and horses, dusting a thin film over men and women. And the miles stretched on before them, endless and timeless.

Rock Bannon, riding away from the train alone, drew in his steel-dust stallion and turned in the saddle, glancing back at the covered wagons, sixteen of them in the long line with some led horses and a few outriders, yet none who rode so far out as himself, and none who appreciated their problems as thoroughly as he did himself.

The vision was in them yet, the gold promise of the distant hills, offering a land of milk and honey, the fair and flowering land sought by all wandering peoples of whatever time or place. No hardship could seem too great, no trail too long, no mountain impassable when the vision was upon them.

His somber green eyes slanted back now to the last wagon but one, where the red-gold hair of Sharon on the drivers seat was a flame no dust could dim. In the back of that heavily loaded wagon was Tom Crockett, her father, restless with fever and hurt, nursing a bullet wound in his thigh, a memento of the battle with Buffalo Hide's warriors.

From the head of the train came a long, melodious halloo. Cap Mulholland swung his arm in a great circle, and the lead oxen turned ponderously to swing in the beginning of the circle. Rock touched the gray with his heels and rode slowly toward the wagon train. Cap's beard was white with dust as he looked up. Weariness and worry showed in his face. "Rock," he said, "we could sure use a little fresh meat. We're all a mite short on rations, and you seem to be the best hunter among us."

"All right," Rock said. "I'll see what I can do after I get Crockett's wagon in place."

Mulholland's head turned sharply. "Bannon, I'd let that girl alone if I were you. No offense intended, but she ain't your kind. I ain't denyin' you've been a sight of help to us. In fact, I don't know what we'd have done without you, and we're glad you came along. But Sharon Crockett's another story. Her pa's bedded down now, and in no shape to speak."

Bannon turned the steel-dust sharply. His face was grim and his jaw hard. "Did he ask you to speak to me? Or did she?"

"Well, no -- not exactly," Mulholland said uncomfortably. "But I'm headin' this train."

"Then I'll thank you to mind your own business. Headin' this wagon train is job enough for any man. Any time the Crocketts ask me to stay away, I'll stay, but that's their affair."

Mulholland's face flushed and his eyes darkened with anger. "She ain't your kind," he persisted, "you bein' a killer, and all."

Rock Bannon stared at him. "You didn't seem to mind my killing Indians!" he said sarcastically.

"I ain't denyin' you helped us, but killin' Indians and killin' white men's a different thing!"

"You're new to the West, Cap." Bannon's voice was rough. "In a short time you'll find there's white men out here that need killin' a sight worse than indians. In fact, I'm not so sure those Indians jumped us without help!"

"What do you mean?" Mulholland demanded.

"I mean," Bannon said, "that Morton Harper told you there'd be no hostile Indians on this route! I warned you of Buffalo Hide then, but he told you he ranged further north. You took his advice on this trail, not mine!"

Pagones and Pike Purcell were coming up to join them. Pike heard the last remark and his lean, lantern-jawed face flushed with anger.

"You ridin' Harper again?" he harshly demanded of Bannon. "He said this was a better trail, and it is. We ain't had no high passes, and we had six days of the best travel we've had since we left Council Bluffs, with plenty of water and plenty of grass. Now we get a few bad days and a brush with Indians, but that ain't too much!" He glared at Rock. "I'm sick of your whinin' about this trail and Harper!"

"I wasn't talking to you," Rock replied shortly, "and I don't like your tone."

"I don't need no killer to tell me my business!"

"Here, here!" Cap protested. We can't afford to have trouble in camp. You'll have to admit, Pike, that we'd have been in bad shape a couple of times in that fight, if it hadn't been for Bannon. He's been a help. I don't agree with him on Mort Harper, either, but every man to his own idea."

Rock swung the gray and cantered off toward the hills. Inwardly, he was seething. He was a fool to stay on the wagon train. Not a man here liked him, not a man here talked to him except on business. He was not even a member of their train, except by accident.

They had found him at the crossing of the Platte. Riding, half dead, with two bullet wounds in his body, his horse ready to drop with fatigue, he had run upon the wagon train. Sharon Crockett had bedded him down in her wagon and cared for him, and he had ridden on in the same place where her father rode now.

He had offered no explanation of his wounds, and had talked but little. A grim and lonely man, gentle words came hard and he could only look up into Sharon's face and wonder at her beauty, tongue-tied and helpless. He recovered rapidly, and after that he had ridden along with the wagons, hunting for fresh meat and helping when he could.

He was not a man who made friends easily, yet gradually the ice was melting, and the clannishness of the wagon train was breaking down. Twice he even talked with Sharon, riding beside her wagon, speaking of the mountains and his own wild and lonely life. All of that ended abruptly that night beside the campfire at the fort.

They had been seated around the fire eating supper, when a tall, handsome man rode up on a beautiful black mare.

Perfectly groomed, his wide white hat topping coal black hair that hung to his shoulders, a drooping black mustache and a black broadcloth suit, the trousers tucked into hand-tooled boots, Morton Harper had been a picture to take any eye.

"Howdy, folks!" His voice was genial, his manner warm and pleasant. In an instant his personality and voice had done what Rock Bannon's could not do in two weeks. He had broken down their reserve and become one of the group. "Headin' for California?"

"Reckon we are. Mulholland had agreed. "We ain't rightly decided whether to stay on the Humboldt Trail or to swing north and go to Oregon."

"Why go either way?" Harper asked. "There's a southern route I could recommend that would be much easier going for your womanfolks." He alerteyes had already found and appreciated Sharon Crockett. "More water, plenty of grass, and no high mountain passes."

Cap Mulholland looked up with interest. "We ain't heard of no such pass, or no such trail."

"Man named Hastings scouted some of it, and I scouted the rest myself. But," he added, "I can see you're well led, and you'll no doubt learn about this trail yourselves."

As the hours flowed by, Harper sat among them, pleasing the men with subtle flattery, the women with smiles. Before long they began to discuss his trail and its possibilities. There was some talk of putting it to a vote, but it was morning before it came to that. Until then Rock was silent. "You'd do better," he interposed suddenly, "to stick to the regular trail."

Harper's head came up sharply and his eyes leveled at Bannon. "Have you ever been over the trail I suggest, my friend?"

"Part way," Rock replied. "Only part of it."

"And was that part easy going for oxen and horses? Was there a good trail?"

"Yes, I reckon it has all that, but I still wouldn't advise it."

"Of course, it's nothing to me what route you take, but if you want to avoid Indians--" He shrugged.

"What about Buffalo Hide?"

Morton Harper's face tightened and his eyes strained to pry Rock Bannon's face from the shadows in which he sat. "He's Blackfoot. He ranges further north."

Harper's eyes shifted to Mulholland. "Who is this man? I'm surprised he should ask about Buffalo Hide, as he isn't known to most white men, other then renegades. I can't understand why he should try to persuade you to neglect an easier route for a more dangerous one. Is he one of your regular train?

Pike Purcell was abrupt. "No, he ain't none of our crowd, just a man who tied up with us back yonder a ways."

"I see," Morton Harper's face became grave with implied doubt. "No offense, friend, but would you mind telling me your name. You'll admit it is safer to be careful, for there are so many renegades who work with the indians."

"My name's Rock Bannon."

Morton Harper's lips tightened and his eyes grew wary. For a moment he seemed taken aback. Then, as he perceived where his own interests lay, his eyes lighted with triumph.

"Ah? Bannon, eh? I've heard of you. Killed a man in Laramie a month or so back, didn't you?"

"He drew on me."

Rock was acutely conscious of the sudden chill in the atmosphere, and he could see Sharon's shocked gaze directed at him. The people of the wagon train were fresh from the East. They were peace-loving men, quiet, and asking for no trouble.

"Sorry to have brought it up, Bannon. But when a man advises a wagon train against their best interests, it is well to inquire the source of the advice."

Bannon got up. He was a tall man, lean-hipped and broad-shouldered, his flat-brimmed hat shadowing his face, his eyes glowing with piercing light as he spoke.

"I still say that route's a fool way to go. This ain't no country to gowanderin' around in, and that route lies through Hardy Bishop's country. You spoke of Hastings. He was the man who advised the Donner Party."

In the morning when they moved out they took the trail Harper had advised, turning off an hour after they left the fort. Rock Bannon was with them. He rode close to Sharon's wagon, and after a time she looked up.

"You don't approve, do you?"

He shook his head. Then he smiled, somewhat grimly. He was a dark, good-looking man with a tinge of recklessness in his green eyes.

"My views aren't important," he said, "I don't belong."

"Pike shouldn't have said that," she said. "He's a strange man. A good man, but stubborn and suspicious.

"Not suspicious of the right folks, maybe."

Her eyes flashed. "You mean Mr. Harper? Why should we be suspicious of him? He was only trying to help."

"I wonder."

"I think," Sharon said sharply, "you'd do better to be a little less suspicious yourself!"

"You haven't met Hardy Bishop yet. Nor Buffalo Hide."

"Who is Hardy Bishop?"

"He's a man who is trying to run cattle at Indian Writing. They say he's insane to try it, but he's claimed seventy miles of range, and he has cattle there. We have to cross his range."

"What's wrong with that?"

"If you cross it, maybe nothing, but Bishop's a funny man. He's going to wonder why you're so far south. He's going to be suspicious."

"We don't care, and we won't bother him any. Does he think he owns the whole country?"

"Uh-huh," Rock said, "I'm afraid he does--with some reason, as far as that valley goes. He made it what it is today."

"How could any man make a valley?" Sharon protested. "This is all free country. Anyway, we're just going through."

The conversation had dwindled and died and after a while he rode off to the far flank of the wagon train. Sharon's manner was distinctly stiff, and he could see she was remembering that story of the killing in Laramie. After a few rebuffs he avoided her. Nobody talked to him. He rode alone and camped alone.